In the midst of armed conflict, every photo tells a story. Just not the one you might think.
During eight days of hostilities between Israel and militants in the Gaza Strip, an argument erupted over the images that documented the fighting. Supporters of each side saw unfairness in how events were portrayed through the news media’s camera lens, in a kind of mirror image of the conflict itself.
Even seemingly universal tableaux of human suffering were fraught with controversy.
An Associated Press photo of a grieving Palestinian man was among the most heart-wrenching. The photo, which ran on the front page of The Washington Post on Nov. 15 and in other newspapers and Web sites, caught the man, a BBC Arabic journalist named Jihad Misharawi, as he cradled the shrouded body of his infant son. The anguish is evident in his eyes and in the heavenward tilt of his head. He stands amid a semicircle of men, one of whom reaches out to console him.
The Post received dozens of complaints about the photo, according to MaryAnne Golon, director of photography. One caller accused The Post of being “Palestinian sympathizers,” part of general pattern of alleged anti-Israel bias in the American media. Others objected to its prominent placement, spanning four columns atop the page.
Further controversial photos — and video — appeared Tuesday, when AP, Reuters and CNN carried gruesome depictions of unidentified Palestinians dragging the body of a man through the streets of Gaza from the back of a motorcycle. All three news organizations said they were told that the dead man was a suspected Israeli spy or collaborator.
Complaints about bias flare with each spike in the struggle, but Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the Washington-based American Task Force on Palestine, isn’t convinced that either side dominates the media spin (“the dishonesty is pretty damn even, really,” he said), although he believes Israelis have the advantage of “cultural affinities” with Western journalists — that is, “they speak American” better than Palestinians.
What’s more, the asymmetrical nature of the conflict — pitting Israel’s modern and well-equipped army against irregular fighters — produces its own image imbalance, said Eric Rozenman, Washington director of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), a watchdog group that has been critical of news portrayals of Israeli actions.
Israel’s missile-defense system and shelters limit the number of casualties from rocket attacks, which results in fewer photos of Israeli suffering to balance the emotionally charged images of death and injury on the other side, he noted. At the same time, Israel’s modern weaponry produces “a telegenic disproportion” that feeds the Israel-as-aggressor framing. “A big fireball coming up from an F-16 strike on a mosque” makes a more shocking picture than scattered rocket fire from the other side, he said.
Israel’s supporters generally reject any portrayal that depicts the nation as the aggressor, and its military as an indiscriminate force that kills civilians with impunity — a narrative they think is promoted by Arab factions. They say that images of Palestinian suffering don’t convey a larger context: that Israel’s military response is in defense of its citizens, who have been deliberately targeted by militants firing rockets from sites within densely populated Gaza neighborhoods.
CAMERA last week criticized Western news organizations for their handling of another series of potent images depicting the death of a 4-year-old Palestinian boy in a Gaza hospital.
Wire services moved photos of the child — limp and lifeless in the arms of various adults — with captions that indicated he had died in an Israeli airstrike near his home. CNN aired video of the scene at the hospital as the child’s body was carried by a doctor and held by a senior Hamas leader and Egyptian prime minister Hisham Kandil in front of a jostling media pack. Reporter Sara Sidner called the child “another victim of an airstrike.”
Except it appears he wasn’t. Subsequent reporting by media organizations indicated that the child more likely died as a result of an errant rocket launched from within Gaza. In effect, the photos may have revealed the opposite of what they purported to show — that the child’s death was inflicted by Palestinian sources, not Israeli.
Reuters, which had circulated the photos, quickly issued a clarification saying the cause of the boy’s death was in dispute. CNN cast doubt on its initial reporting, too, saying the incident could have been caused by “the misfire of a Hamas rocket intended for Israel.”
Some news organizations, including The Post, declined to publish the photos because they suggested exploitation — and manipulation of tragedy.
“Every single alarm went off in my head when I saw them,” Golon said. “They looked like a media event around a dead child. They should not be parading this child’s body around for PR purposes.”
But displaying corpses as evidence of an enemy’s barbarity is an accepted practice in some parts of the world, and sometimes it’s news, said Santiago Lyon, vice president and director of photography for the Associated Press. He cautions that any news photo needs to be set in its proper context, with captions that spell out “the same who, what, why” as a news story.
“The idea is to leave as few unanswered questions as you can,” he said. “If we have a doubt and can’t say something with authority, we’re probably not going to go there.” (AP’s photographers didn’t take the photos of the dead boy, but it distributed the pictures through a content-sharing agreement with another agency, Rex Features).
While photos often portray reality in ways more powerful than words, they can also easily distort. As Lyon notes, context is important: Cropping, inaccurate captioning or staging an image for effect can distort what’s really there.
Digital photo-altering tools also have made it easy to create outright fabrications — ”faux-tography” — although there are only a few documented cases of it slipping into the journalistic ecosystem. Reuters was blindsided in 2006 when a freelance photographer in Lebanon digitally altered a photo to make an Israeli attack on Beirut look more destructive. The agency withdrew the picture and severed ties with the photographer.
“We made a mistake,” said Alix Freedman, Reuters’s global editor of ethics and standards. “We dealt with it decisively and quickly and learned from it.”
Ibish of the American Task Force on Palestine said the best advice for journalists is the same as in any other conflict — to remain skeptical of both sides. “There is in this world fairness, and a sense of proportion,” he said. “If you find yourself identifying with one side, it’s time to get a new job.”